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Expert agents.

We've been hearing a good deal of talk about ,,content-based" software-- electronic dictionaries and handbooks, clip art files, disk-based catalogs, even those legendary computer-based cookbooks (which actually exist, and are a thriving business). As software, however, most of these products don't do very much; they are essentially on-line reference works, turbo-charged versions of the traditional paper-based book.

But we're also beginning to see a different kind of content-oriented software that goes well beyond the book model. Such products--which we might call "expert agent" tools--are based on procedural content rather than on simple data. They literally take over the execution of difficult tasks, using embedded knowledge and methods that are ordinarily more advanced than the user's own expertise.

It's difficult to describe this "expert agent" trend as clearly as we'd like, because the category embraces so many otherwise unrelated products. But we believe something very important is happening in the market in this area; in fact, expert agent products may turn out to be one of the big market factors of the next decade. So we're going to take a shot at a sneak preview of this trend:

Not surprisingly, one market that's moving rapidly toward an "expert agent" model is tax preparation software. Early tax packages typically provided simple help files that were limited to the exact language of the IRS's own instructions. Now, however, both of the market leaders in the tax category--ChipSoft's TurboTax and MECA's TaxCut--have begun to offer advice on judgment issues as well as product usage. "If you think you're going to get around the intent of an IRS rule with a clever dodge, think twice," TaxCut warns Schedule C filers. "Chances are there's a rule somewhere that prohibits it."

Such advice is probably on a par with the guidance a taxpayer would get from a well-trained H&R Block preparer. But that's an adequate level of expertise for most people, whose own knowledge of the tax code is sketchy and uncertain. (Our favorite tongue-in-cheek definition of an expert is "anyone who knows more about a subject than we do.")

Moreover, both TurboTax and TaxCut contain "interview" features that interactively guide the befuddled taxpayer through the mysteries of selecting the right forms and completing tricky sections. This expert advice isn't just an on-line reference guide; instead, the software itself becomes an active (and skillful) agent in helping the user fill out a correct and customized return.

In a similar vein, Symantec has just released a project management addon called Guide Line, a series of 16 interactive templates that cover such tasks as construction, LAN installation, seminar and trade show production, software development, and office relocation. Like TurboTax and TaxCut, each Guide Line template is a small-scale expert system, which sets up a personalized project plan based on the experience of individual domain experts. For instance, the Guide Line template for managing a software development project reflects Symantec's own in-house development experience- "We spent quite a lot of cycles looking at how we do things, at the methods that seemed to deliver the biggest wins," Symantec executive vice president Gene Wang told us recently.

Symantec created its Guide Line templates with the help of.traditional expert system "knowledge engineering" techniques. But Guide Line more thoroughly integrates the knowledge into the process that the user manages. As a result, the expert content is more dynamic, more capable of answering questions as a project evolves. (Should we add another programmer? Are we spending enough time on beta testing? What's the best time to start writing the manual?)

The next step, perhaps, would be expert agent software that analyzes what the user is doing and, like an experienced teacher, suggests methods that would be more successful. In fact, that's not such a farfetched idea. A few years ago, author and playwright Sol Stein created a tutorial program called WritePro, which embodies the techniques that Stein developed to teach creative writing. WritePro shows would-be writers how to improve their work, says Stein, by "asking questions of increasing complexity" about various dialogue and storytelling exercises. "The effect is that of an instructor leaning over the student's shoulder, advising and guiding," he says.

All of these products, it's worth noting, are based on fairly routine technology--no multimedia, artificial intelligence, or object linking. Yet we think they offer a very plausible answer to the question of what the next generation of software could look like. Instead of adding more and more features (which users don't always seem to want),'it's possible that future products will begin to focus on giving users more contentbased skills and expertise. And if that happens, the quality of a product's "expert agency" content could turn out to be more important than the underlying software technology.
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Title Annotation:software packages based on procedural content expanding the boundaries of content-based software
Date:Mar 5, 1993
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